Cole Pauls’ Kwändǖr has already gained a significant degree of acclaim, having won a BC and Yukon Book Prize to sit aside the Indigenous Voices Award he won for previous graphic novel Dakwäkãda Warriors. Kwändǖr explores and celebrates “the cultural practices and experiences of Dene and Arctic peoples” and compiles his work from minicomics, festivals and zine-making workshops, alongside a new story that acts as a thematic coda to the book. It’s published by BF Award-nominated Conundrum Press and, with Pauls currently at Angoulême and signing at London’s Gosh! Comics on Monday, this is a most appropriate time to be drawing your attention to this vital autobio collection.
Pauls is a member of the Tahltan First Nation and a resident of Haines Junction, Yukon. While Kwändǖr initially feels like a procession of insightful vignettes into Pauls’ lived experiences in that regard it becomes quickly apparent that these individual strips are building up into something far greater as the book progresses. Opening strip ‘My First Crit at Emily Carr’, for example, is a powerful account of the irony of Pauls being attacked in an academic environment for perceived cultural appropriation by an ignorant and zealously performative student. It sets the tone for what is to follow – work that embodies both slice-of-life storytelling and profound social commentary.
Kwändǖr underlines the resilience and strength of indigenous cultures and their determination in the face of displacement and oppression. In ‘Estsiye Kime’(Grandpa’s Home’, below) Pauls and his grandfather Jack recount how the Canadian forest fires destroyed a cabin on family land, and a subsequent pragmatism on the process of future rebuilding. In ‘Permanent Regalia’ Pauls looks at the insidiousness of cultural appropriation from a first-hand viewpoint with an examination of tattooing that embeds reflections on land theft and genocide.
There are also more explanatory entries in Kwändǖr that introduce non-indigenous readers to traditions like the Arctic Games which includes sports like Snow Snake, the Alaskan High Kick, or the Knuckle Hop. It’s the differing tone and atmosphere of each strip – some celebratory, some righteously angry, and some calmly meditational – and their often multilingual presentation that allow us to experience these cultural explorations from multiple perspectives. This is a collection that includes work from 2014 onwards so there are obviously notable shifts in visual storytelling confidence, but Kwändǖr echoes some of my regular thoughts about autobiographical material and how a more immediate capturing of events on the page actually lends it a greater candour and authenticity.
Ultimately Kwändǖr’s strength is twofold and not simply in its commemoration of the lives and customs of Dene and Arctic peoples, as important as that obviously is. It’s also a book that will invite the reader, however much of an ally they may believe themselves to be, to question their attitudes and approaches to the issues and topics Kwändǖr brings up. Something any of us in a position of privilege always need to accept and embrace rather than defensively dismiss.
Cole Pauls (W/A) • Conundrum Press, $25.00
Review by Andy Oliver
Cole Pauls will signing at London’s Gosh! Comics on Monday, January 29th between 6pm and 7pm. More details here.